ASPEN - Snow has blanketed the Aspen Golf Club, much to the delight of nordic skiers. But that doesn't mean local golfers and visitors can't hit the links this winter.
An area resident recently donated a used Full Swing golf simulator to the Aspen Junior Golf Association. The association, in turn, donated it to the Aspen Golf Club, where it was set up this week next to the bar in the Red Mountain Grill.
The simulator is essentially a high-tech cage. Infrared sensors track each shot - the spin, speed and trajectory of a ball in flight - and display the result on a large screen. There's no special trick involved in playing virtual golf. The ball sits on a carpet, and a player grabs the appropriate club for the distance and conditions and steps up and hits it as if the game were being played outdoors.
A player can practice on a simulated range or play any one of 50 courses that mirror the layout and look of actual courses around the world, such as the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland. On Thursday, Aspen Golf Club head pro David DiMartino and a few other locals were testing out the high-tech contraption, playing a virtual version of Castle Pines Golf Club, a Jack Nicklaus-designed championship course in Castle Rock, south of Denver.
"It's great," said Russ Aragon, who on Thursday was blasting drives into the screen with friends. "I play a lot of golf here. I think everybody's going to love it. You can ski; skiing's great, too. But sometimes you need a little break from it."
Aragon said he finds the simulated game to be highly accurate. The short shots - chips, pitches and putts - take some getting used to, he said.
"It seems like when you've hit a good shot, you know you've hit it, and when you hit a poor one, you can feel it, and it does what it should do," Aragon said. "The short game is a little different. You have to get a feel for the yardages, but once you do, it's spot on."
DiMartino said he doesn't think there are any such simulators available to the public in the Roaring Fork Valley. Maroon Creek Club has one for its members, he said.
"It's very real," DiMartino said. "I can tell right away at impact whether I've hit it left or right, and it does pick up the actual spin and trajectory of the shot and is very true to distance, as well. A lot of it depends on which golf course you're playing."
A player can set up different course conditions: wind speeds, soft and firm greens, fog and the like. Part of the beauty of the simulated golf cage is that it doesn't take long to play a round because no walking or cart-riding is involved. Two players could finish nine holes in less than an hour, provided that they aren't messing around.
"You can play Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines, Oakmont, your choice of 50 courses," DiMartino said. "You can play as many holes as you want. You can pick your format, skins or scramble or stroke play. It's pretty remarkable."
He said he was skeptical about the system at first, but it plays true to a golfer's form, and the entertainment value is high.
"People can reserve it by the hour, bring friends, have some drinks and some food, and play golf when there's 8 inches of snow outside," he said.
DiMartino said the simulator also can accommodate lessons and clinics. He's hoping it will be a hit with men and women alike.
"We may put on some ladies' clinics and have some food and some wine," he said. "Ladies don't like to be out on the range with lessons. They like to have their own spot. So it's a great atmosphere for learning; it's not very stressful to them, and they're not all hitting at the same time. It's all about having fun."
One need not be an avid golfer to enjoy virtual golf, DiMartino pointed out.
"We're not looking in the weeds for everybody's golf ball," he said. "It's very quick. I can play with a person with a 10 handicap, a 20 handicap, a 30 handicap. Anybody can play with anybody, and everybody's going to have a good time doing it. You're not going to feel the pressure of holding up the group behind you."
The city's director of golf, Steve Aitken, said if the simulator sparks a lot of play this winter, it could become a year-round regular feature of the municipal course operation. City officials are considering whether to redo the basement underneath the clubhouse, and virtual golf could become part of the renovated-basement scenario.
Having the simulator in the Red Mountain Grill is kind of an experiment, Aitken said. It will be moved out of the restaurant once the course opens next spring.
"It's a trial period, and we're going to see how it goes," he said. "We thought this might be a way to walk before we decide to run."
Free demonstrations allowing roughly 15 minutes per person will be available Friday from 4 to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The simulator will be made available to players and groups at a $50-per-hour rate on Wednesdays through Sundays from 2 to 9 p.m.
Call 970-544-6336 for more information. The Aspen Golf Club is northwest of Aspen, past the Highway 82 roundabout and next to the Truscott Place affordable-housing development.